The following was distributed earlier today as my weekly Substack newsletter on Lowell politics. If you’d like to receive this weekly update by email in the future, sign up here.
There was no Lowell City Council meeting last week so today we’ll catch up on some other items.
The city of Lowell’s website has a “construction projects” page that contains valuable information. Because I travel to the Lowell Justice Center in the Hamilton Canal Innovation District every day for work, I’m especially interested in what’s going on there.
Perhaps most visible is the Lord Overpass project. That attained an important milestone last week when the Fletcher-Thorndike-Jackson intersection became fully operational. Previously, on Fletcher Street you could only turn right onto Thorndike outbound (towards the Lowell Connector); on Jackson Street you could only turn right onto Thorndike/Dutton inbound (towards City Hall). Now, from both Fletcher and Jackson you can turn left, right or go straight. Not many are using Jackson Street yet, but I predict it will become increasingly popular for people coming from Belvidere, Billerica, or Tewksbury who are bound for the Merrimack River. By driving up Jackson from Central Street, you can cross directly onto Fletcher Street and quickly reach Pawtucket Street at O’Donnell Funeral Home. Once this becomes a more popular route, it should siphon off traffic from other routes heading in the same direction.
Another high-visibility project is the privately-owned parking garage at 330 Jackson Street. The structure went up rapidly. Six months ago, it seemed about a month away from completion. Today, it still seems about a month away from completion. There are people working there every day, but given the speed with which the structure went up, the rest of the project seems to have slowed considerably. The most recent update on this project on the city’s website states “infrastructure work will happen during the month of December 2022 that includes road trenching at the intersection of Canal Street and Jackson Street.” That all happened and was wrapped up quickly, but the city provides no further news on the project.
At least the 330 Jackson Street garage is mentioned on the city’s construction projects webpage. There is no mention there of the neighboring projects that provided the justification for building the garage. The Land Disposition Agreement between the city and the developer (the Lupoli Companies LLC) mandated that construction of one of the two contemplated buildings was to have started no later than June 30, 2023. Looking at both of those lots on Friday, I didn’t see anything resembling the start of construction despite the deadline for that milestone passing six weeks ago.
Here’s some background on all of this:
One of the few surviving buildings in the Hamilton Canal District was 110 Canal Street, better known as the UMass Lowell Innovation Hub (or something like that). The land that building sits upon is called Lot 10 in the HCID Plan. Behind that building is the Pawtucket Canal. On one side of the building were Lots 9 and 8. These were sold to WinnDevelopment which a couple of years ago constructed two connected buildings containing approximately 150 apartments.
To the front of UML’s 110 Canal Place is a vacant dirt parcel known as Lot 5. On the other side of 110 Canal Place is a large surface parking lot that formerly provided parking for 110 Canal Place. That parking lot contains HCID Lots 2, 3A, and 4. Across the Hamilton Canal and Jackson Street from this large multi-lot parcel is the Lowell Justice Center. To the front of the Justice Center is the currently-under-construction privately-owned parking garage. This is HCID Lot 1.
On December 18, 2020, the city of Lowell entered into the above-mentioned Land Disposition Agreement with the Lupoli Companies LLC in the role of HCID developer (with “developer” having special connotations within the HCID context; remember, the city has hired and fired at least two prior developers, Trinity and Winn). According to this agreement which was recorded at the Middlesex North Registry of Deeds on June 10, 2021, in book 35861, page 1 (in case you’re interested in seeing all 137 pages), the developer had submitted a “Proposal for Parcels 1 through 5 of the Hamilton Canal Innovation District.” The proposal was for a “phased development” with each phase operating independently. The agreement specified that if one part of the proposal was not completed, it would not affect the other phases.
As part of the proposal, the city would transfer these HCID lots to the developer upon the payment of $2,000,000 by the developer to the city. In addition, the developer agreed to do the following:
Construct a 12-14 story building with covered parking on Lots 2, 3A, and 4 (collectively, the former UML surface parking lot).
Construct a 50,000 square foot building on Lot 5 (the vacant dirt lot).
Construct a 500-space parking garage on Lot 1 (the former vacant lot in front of the Justice Center).
For a schedule, the agreement stated that “Construction shall begin” on Parcel 1 (the parking garage) no later than June 30, 2021; and on either Parcel 5 or on Parcels 2, 3A, and 4 (the vacant dirt lot or the surface parking lot) no later than June 30, 2023. The agreement also stated that “the core and shell of the buildings on all of the developer’s parcels shall be substantially completed by December 31, 2027.”
Pursuant to this agreement, on June 8, 2021, the city of Lowell conveyed Lot 5 (the vacant dirt lot) to 291 Jackson Street LLC (which has Salvatore Lupoli as its manager) for $500,000. In a second deed on that same day, the city conveyed Lots 2, 3A, and 4 (UML parking lot) to 341 Jackson Street LLC (also with Lupoli as manager) for $1,130,000.
Four months later, on October 14, 2021, the city conveyed Lot 1 (in front of the Justice Center) to 330 Jackson Street LLC (another Lupoli limited liability company) for $403,206.
Add up the consideration on the three deeds and you get $2,033,206, which exceeds the $2mil Lupoli had agreed to pay in the Land Disposition Agreement.
On October 29, 2021, each of the three Lupoli LLCs granted mortgages to The Lowell Five Cent Savings Bank to secure a construction loan of $19,700,000. On July 1, 2022, amendments to those mortgages were recorded increasing the indebtedness to $22,900,000.
Although there were three different mortgages recorded, that was because the three parcels or parcel groups were each owned by a separate LLC (limited liability corporation). However, there was almost certainly only one loan of $19,700,000 (now $22,900,000).
My guess is that this money paid for the construction of the parking garage on Lot 1, the garage that has seemed near completion for six months.
As for the other parcels, they mostly are used as staging areas for the parking garage project. However, on several occasions I’ve noticed a convoy of black SVUs pull into the former UML parking lot and watched a squad of people in business attire emerge and look around. Otherwise, there has been nothing visible on either Lot 5 or on the Lot 2, 3A, and 4 cluster, certainly nothing that would qualify as the beginning of construction as required by the city’s agreement with the developer.
ADUs seem to be in the news often these days. Or maybe they’ve always been in the news and I’m more apt to notice it now given the city’s intense debate over legalizing them here.
California seems to be leading the way. According to a Los Angeles Times article from early this year, ADUs had been nearly impossible to build anywhere in California because local zoning ordinances included so many limitations that ADUs were either cost prohibitive or legally impossible to build. In 2017, however, the state legislature overrode local limitations and passed a state law that set just three conditions: (1) the ADU must be no more than 800 square feet in size; (2) it must be no more than 16 feet tall; and (3) it must be at least 4 feet from the property line. If all three are met, an ADU is eligible for a permit in any residential or mixed-use zone.
The article then discusses whether it’s a homeowner should consider building an ADU. It suggests five scenarios in which ADUs might be a good idea:
- Creating a rental unit to generate income.
- Providing space for a daughter, son or other young-adult relation working on a degree or starting a career.
- Providing an apartment for a caregiver looking after someone in the house.
- Housing an older relative.
- Having a scaled-down home to live in after the kids move out.
Another factor is the cost of building an ADU. Assuming you want a separate structure and not a retrofitted garage, you need a dwelling-suitable foundation, a kitchen, a bathroom, heating and cooling, and all the associated infrastructure. A separate ADU would be cheaper than building a single-family home but not by much. Even converting a garage to an ADU would be expensive since it would still have to comply with code requirements for dwelling.
The California law does allow individual communities to ban the use of ADUs for short term rentals like AirBNBs, but the state law prohibits communities from adding parking requirements to ADUs, even if the ADU eliminates existing parking spots as would be the case with the conversion of a garage. Experts quoted in the story said that strict parking requirements in earlier ADU laws were the biggest impediment to their construction; as soon as parking was removed as a requirement, ADU construction in California boomed.
A recent Op-Ed in the Boston Globe made a strong case for increased ADUs to help ease the state’s housing crisis. “One solution is in our own backyards” observes that while many communities in the state have modified their zoning ordinances to permit ADU construction, continued local control has also inserted so many restrictions in ADU rules that they remain very difficult to build. Two generic restrictions the author argues against are (1) that the owner of the property must live in the ADU or in the main house on the lot; and (2) parking requirements, especially for ADUs constructed within a half mile of a mass transit hub such as a subway or train station.
To overcome these impediments, the author, who is a cofounder of an outfit that builds ADU-like structures and clearly is an advocate for their adoption, urges the legislature to pass a statewide ADU law just as California did.
The AARP has also joined the debate in a very pro-ADU way. In “How to Grow Your Home in New Ways”, the AARP Magazine said, “Accessory dwelling units (ADUs) and other add-ons are booming.” The article then lays out five real-life ADU scenarios, however, four of them involve family members as both the owner/occupant of the primary residence and of the ADU. This is a little misleading because almost everyone would be OK with a “within the family” situation – the classic in-law apartment setup. It is the ADU as a rental unit scenario that worries people and motivates much of the opposition.